FBI trainee and UVA graduate Clarice Starling is pulled from her training at the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia by Jack Crawford of the Bureau's Behavioral Science Unit. He assigns her to interview Hannibal Lecter, a former psychiatrist and incarcerated cannibalistic serial killer, whose insight might prove useful in the pursuit of a serial killer nicknamed "Buffalo Bill", who skins his female victims' corpses.
Starling travels to the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where she is led by Dr. Frederick Chilton to Lecter's solitary quarters. Although initially pleasant and courteous, Lecter grows impatient with Starling's attempts at "dissecting" him and rebuffs her. As she is leaving, one of the prisoners flicks semen at her. Lecter, who considers this act "unspeakably ugly", calls Starling back and tells her to seek out an old patient of his. This leads her to a storage shed where she discovers a man's severed head with a sphinx moth lodged in its throat. She returns to Lecter, who tells her that the man is linked to Buffalo Bill. He offers to profile Buffalo Bill on the condition that he be transferred away from Chilton, whom he detests.
Buffalo Bill abducts a U.S. Senator's daughter, Catherine Martin. Crawford authorizes Starling to offer Lecter a fake deal promising a prison transfer if he provides information that helps them find Buffalo Bill and rescue Catherine. Instead, Lecter demands a quid pro quo from Starling, offering clues about Buffalo Bill in exchange for personal information. Starling tells Lecter about the murder of her father when she was ten years old. Chilton secretly records the conversation and reveals Starling's deceit before offering Lecter a deal of Chilton's own making. Lecter agrees and is flown to Memphis, Tennessee, where he verbally torments Senator Ruth Martin and gives her misleading information on Buffalo Bill, including the name "Louis Friend".
Starling notices that "Louis Friend" is an anagram of "iron sulfide" — fool's gold. She visits Lecter, who is now being held in a cage-like cell in a Tennessee courthouse, and asks for the truth. Lecter tells her that all the information she needs is contained in the case file. Rather than give her the real name, he insists that they continue their quid pro quo and she recounts a traumatic childhood incident where she was awakened by the sound of spring lambs being slaughtered on a relative's farm in Montana. Starling admits that she still sometimes wakes thinking she can hear lambs screaming, and Lecter speculates that she is motivated to save Catherine in the hope that it will end the nightmares. Lecter gives her back the case files on Buffalo Bill after their conversation is interrupted by Chilton and the police, who escort her from the building. Later that evening, Lecter kills his guards, escapes from his cell and disappears.
Starling analyzes Lecter's annotations to the case files and realizes that Buffalo Bill knew his first victim personally. Starling travels to the victim's hometown and discovers that Buffalo Bill was a tailor, with dresses and dress patterns identical to the patches of skin removed from each of his victims. She telephones Crawford to inform him that Buffalo Bill is trying to fashion a "woman suit" of real skin, but Crawford is already en route to make an arrest, having cross-referenced Lecter's notes with hospital archives and finding a transsexual man named Jame Gumb, who once applied unsuccessfully for a sex-change operation. Starling continues interviewing friends of Buffalo Bill's first victim in Ohio while Crawford leads an FBI HRT team to Gumb's address in Illinois. The house in Illinois is empty, and Starling is led to the house of "Jack Gordon", who she realizes is actually Jame Gumb, again by finding a sphinx moth. She pursues him into his multi-room basement, where she discovers that Catherine is still alive, but trapped in a dry well. After turning off the basement lights, Gumb stalks Starling in the dark with night-vision goggles, but gives his position away when he cocks his revolver. Starling reacts just in time and fires all of her rounds at Gumb, killing him.
Sometime later, at her FBI Academy graduation party, Starling receives a phone call from Lecter, who is at an airport in Bimini. He assures her that he does not plan to pursue her and asks her to return the favor, which she says she cannot do. Lecter then hangs up the phone, saying that he is "having an old friend for dinner", and starts following a newly arrived Chilton before disappearing into the crowd.
The Silence of the Lambs is based on Thomas Harris' 1988 novel of the same name and is the second film to feature the character Hannibal Lecter following the 1986 film Manhunter. Prior to the novel's release, Orion Pictures partnered with Gene Hackman to bring the novel to the big screen. With Hackman set to direct and possibly star in the role of Lecter, negotiations were made to split the $500,000 cost of rights between Hackman and the studio. In addition to securing the rights to the novel, producers also had to acquire the rights to the name "Hannibal Lecter", which were owned by Manhunter producer Dino De Laurentiis. Owing to the financial failure of the earlier film, De Laurentiis lent the character rights to Orion Pictures for free.
In November 1987, Ted Tally was brought on to write the adaptation; Tally had previously crossed paths with Harris many times, with his interest in adapting The Silence of the Lambs originating from receiving an advanced copy of the book from Harris himself. When Tally was about halfway through with the first draft, Hackman withdrew from the project and financing fell through. However, Orion Pictures co-founder Mike Medavoy assured Tally to keep writing as the studio itself took care of financing and searched for a replacement director. As a result, Orion Pictures sought director Jonathan Demme to helm the project. With the screenplay not yet completed, Demme signed on after reading the novel. From there, the project quickly took off, as Tally explained, "[Demme] read my first draft not long after it was finished, and we met, then I was just startled by the speed of things. We met in May 1989 and were shooting in November. I don't remember any big revisions."
Jodie Foster was interested in playing the role of Clarice Starling immediately after reading the novel. However, despite Foster's having just won an Academy Award for her performance in the 1988 film The Accused, Demme was not convinced that she was right for the part. Having previously collaborated on Married to the Mob, Demme's first choice for the role of Starling was Michelle Pfeiffer, who turned it down, later saying, "It was a difficult decision, but I got nervous about the subject matter". As a result, Foster was awarded the role due to her passion towards the character.
For the role of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Demme originally approached Sean Connery. After the actor turned it down, Anthony Hopkins was then offered the part based on his performance in The Elephant Man. Other actors considered for the role included Derek Jacobi and Daniel Day-Lewis.
Scott Glenn was cast in the role of Jack Crawford, the Agent-in-Charge of the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI in Quantico, Virginia. To prepare for the role, Glenn met with John E. Douglas, after whom the character is modeled. Douglas gave Glenn a tour of the Quantico facility and also played for him an audio tape containing various recordings that serial killers Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris had made of themselves raping and torturing a 16-year-old girl. According to Douglas, Glenn wept as he experienced the recordings and even changed his liberal stance on the death penalty.
Principal photography for The Silence of the Lambs began on November 15, 1989 and concluded on March 1, 1990. Filming primarily took place in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with some scenes shot in nearby northern West Virginia. The home of Buffalo Bill used for exterior scenes was in Layton, Pennsylvania. The exterior of the Western Center near Canonsburg, Pennsylvania served as the setting for Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. In what was a rare act of cooperation at the time, the FBI allowed scenes to be filmed at the FBI Academy in Quantico; some FBI staff members even acted in bit parts.
The musical score for The Silence of the Lambs was composed by Howard Shore, who would also go on to collaborate with Demme on Philadelphia. Recorded in Munich during the latter half of the summer of 1990, the score was performed by the Munich Symphony Orchestra. "I tried to write in a way that goes right into the fabric of the movie," explained Shore on his approach. "I tried to make the music just fit in. When you watch the movie you are not aware of the music. You get your feelings from all elements simultaneously, lighting, cinematography, costumes, acting, music. Jonathan Demme was very specific about the music." A soundtrack album was released by MCA Records on February 5, 1991. Music from the film was later used in the trailers for its sequel, Hannibal.
The tune played by the music box which Starling finds in the bedroom of Buffalo Bill's first victim is taken from Mozart's opera The Magic Flute. It is, ironically, the tune played by Papageno's magical bells, which charms his enemies and protects him from danger.
The Silence of the Lambs was released on February 14, 1991, grossing $14 million during its opening weekend. At the time it closed on October 10, 1991, the film had grossed $131 million domestically with a total worldwide gross of $273 million. It was the fourth highest-grossing film of 1991.
The Silence of the Lambs was a sleeper hit that gradually gained widespread success and critical acclaim. Hopkins, Foster, and Levine garnered much acclaim for their performances. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 95% of 73 film critics have given the film a positive review, with an average rating of 8.5 out of 10. The site's consensus reads: "Director Jonathan Demme's smart, taut thriller teeters on the edge between psychological study and all-out horror, and benefits greatly from stellar performances by Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster." Metacritic, another review aggregator, assigned the film a weighted average score of 84 out of 100, based on 17 reviews from mainstream critics, indicating "universal acclaim".
Roger Ebert, of the Chicago Sun-Times, specifically mentioned the "terrifying qualities" of Hannibal Lecter. Ebert later added the film to his list of The Great Movies, recognizing the film as a "horror masterpiece" alongside such classics as Nosferatu, Psycho, and Halloween. However, the film is also notable for being one of two multi-Academy Award winners (the other being Unforgiven) disapproved of by Ebert's colleague, Gene Siskel. Writing for the Chicago Tribune, Siskel said, "Foster's character, who is appealing, is dwarfed by the monsters she is after. I'd rather see her work on another case."
The film won the Big Five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Demme), Best Actor (Hopkins), Best Actress (Foster), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally), making it only the third film in history to accomplish that feat. It was also nominated for Best Sound Mixing (Tom Fleischman and Christopher Newman) and Best Film Editing, but lost to Terminator 2: Judgment Day and JFK, respectively.
Other awards include being named Best Film by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, CHI Awards and PEO Awards. Demme won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 41st Berlin International Film Festival and was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Director. The film was nominated for the Grand Prix of the Belgian Film Critics Association. It was also nominated for the British Academy Film Award for Best Film. Screenwriter Ted Tally received an Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay. The film was awarded Best Horror Film of the Year during the 2nd Horror Hall of Fame telecast, with Vincent Price presenting the award to the film's executive producer Gary Goetzman.
In 1998, the film was listed as one of the 100 greatest films in the past 100 years by the American Film Institute. In 2006, at the Key Art Awards, the original poster for The Silence of the Lambs was named best film poster "of the past 35 years". The Silence of the Lambs placed seventh on Bravo's The 100 Scariest Movie Moments for Lecter's escape scene. The American Film Institute named Hannibal Lecter (as portrayed by Hopkins) the number one film villain of all time and Clarice Starling (as portrayed by Foster) the sixth greatest film hero of all time. In 2011, ABC aired a prime-time special, Best in Film: The Greatest Movies of Our Time, that counted down the best films chosen by fans based on results of a poll conducted by ABC and People magazine. The Silence of the Lambs was selected as the No. 1 Best Suspense/Thriller and Dr. Hannibal Lecter was selected as the No. 4 Greatest Film Character.
The film and its characters have appeared in the following AFI "100 Years" lists:AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies—#65
AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills—#5
AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains:
Hannibal Lecter—#1 Villain
Clarice Starling—#6 Hero
"Buffalo Bill" (Jame Gumb)—Nominated Villain
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
"A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti."—#21
"I do wish we could chat longer, but I'm having an old friend for dinner."—Nominated
AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores—Nominated
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition)—#74
In 2015, Entertainment Weekly's 25th anniversary year, it included The Silence of the Lambs in its list of the 25 best movies made since the magazine's beginning.
Accusations of homophobia, transphobia and sexism
Upon its release, The Silence of the Lambs was criticized by members of the LGBT community for its portrayal of Buffalo Bill as bisexual and transsexual. In response to the critiques, Demme replied that Buffalo Bill "wasn't a gay character. He was a tormented man who hated himself and wished he was a woman because that would have made him as far away from himself as he possibly could be." Demme added that he "came to realize that there is a tremendous absence of positive gay characters in movies".
In a 1992 interview with Playboy magazine, notable feminist and women's rights advocate Betty Friedan stated, "I thought it was absolutely outrageous that The Silence of the Lambs won four [sic] Oscars. […] I'm not saying that the movie shouldn't have been shown. I'm not denying the movie was an artistic triumph, but it was about the evisceration, the skinning alive of women. That is what I find offensive. Not the Playboy centerfold."